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Christmas at the Royal Naval College

Sat 26 Dec 20

In 1873, the buildings that were once the Royal Hospital for Seamen became the Royal Naval College, to provide high-level training for the British Navy. Until 1997 when the College left Greenwich, officers trained here, joined from 1939 by the Wrens, the women recruited by the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

Meals were served up to the trainees in the spectacular Painted Hall and food was plentiful and substantial, even in wartime. 3rd Officer WRNS JM Bosdet recalled her first meal on arrival, in 1943: ‘potato soup, lamb, mint sauce, new peas and potatoes followed by strawberries and cream. But it didn’t seem right to be eating that in the 4th year of the war with a white gloved pair of hands to each half dozen of us’.

Mrs. Hodges, also a Wren, remembers that ‘in the Painted Hall were some wonderful silver candlesticks on all the long tables, plus much other silverware… Every evening we had port after dinner’.

Similarly, Wren GM Sellers recalled: ’The historical background, eating in the famous Painted Hall and the food! Well, has to be seen to be believed. Stewards wearing white gloves waited on us, and after a time in this super luxury one began to imagine oneself a lady’.

Christmas at the Royal Naval College was quite special, especially for those who, away from their homes, found themselves in such a magnificent setting. Yeen Lennard, who served in the WRNS and was in Greenwich from 1959, tells us that it was traditional for officers to serve Christmas dinner to the other ranks. Sometimes, children from nearby schools were invited for a party during the Christmas season. According to Wren Rosemary Curtis Wilson, ‘Service tradition dictated that dinner was served by the officers and there was a small party in the evening. Most of the day, however, was spent queuing to use the telephone’.

A midnight service was held on Christmas Eve in the Chapel. Jane Eldridge, who was a Cadet Officer in Greenwich in the 1940s, remembers decorating the Chapel with holly. During the London blitz of the Second World War, blackout regulations did not allow for more than two altar candles to be lit, so everyone had to find their way using torches. After the service, Superintendent Elsie French traditionally hosted a party in the WRNS wardroom with tea, cocoa and cake for Wrens and Naval officers and cadets. This was very popular and was often gate-crashed!

Mrs Eldridge recalled winter in the old Greenwich Hospital buildings: ‘It was lovely being in the old building. It was terribly cold, no heat. We had a bath in the corridor with a screen around. There was a line in the bath so that we could only have four inches of water.  Sometimes three of us bathed together in twelve inches of water to get a decent bath!’.

Some nice oddities are linked with Christmas celebrations at the Royal Naval College. It’s thought that sports like rugby were encouraged on Christmas day, near the end of the Second World War, as it prevented anyone from getting too drunk!

The Royal Naval College felt like a second home to many. Despite the buildings being cold and not entirely furnished with modern conveniences, many still remember the spirit of camaraderie and how, alongside rigorous training, they found time for fun.